Former PM Brown urges Scots to stay in UK
LONDON — Former British prime minister Gordon Brown waded into the battle over Scottish independence yesterday, warning his fellow- countrymen of a ticking pensions “time bomb” that would hit the country hard if they voted to leave the United Kingdom.
Scottish-born Brown has kept a low profile since losing the 2010 general election. He was an unpopular leader in England during his time in office, but his standing is far higher north of the border, where Labour was the major party until beaten by the Scottish National Party (SNP) in 2007.
Speaking at Glasgow University, Brown aimed his speech clearly at Scotland’s ageing population, using new figures to argue that pensioners will benefit from being in a UK-wide scheme.
Polls show the campaign against independence in the lead by just a few percent but the Yes campaign has sustained a rally in support that it won last year, narrowing the gap significantly.
Brown was making his first speech in support of the cross-party Better Together campaign, which is run by his former chancellor Alistair Darling. His alignment with the group is surprising, considering the way their relationship deterioated after Labour’s removal from office, especially following the publication of Darling’s memoirs.
Brown himself was famously chancellor of the exchequer under Tony Blair, where he was widely credited with stearing Britain’s economy admirably. The trouble for Brown came when he took over as prime minister, a move that was disliked by much of the electorate and led to him to him becoming one of the most unpopular leaders of Britain of modern times.
But he still has respect in Scotland, and his entrance into the debate will worry the SNP.
Brown used new figures, apparently leaked from the Department of Work and Pensions, to argue pensioners will benefit from being in a UK-wide scheme.
“The bills for pensions mount because of a pensioners’ time-bomb as Scottish pensioner numbers rise by 300,000 even as Scotland’s working age population grows more slowly than that of the UK,” he said, estimating the number of Scottish pensioners will rise to 1.3 million.
“Pensioners are better protected when the risks are spread across the UK and it is also clear that in the year the SNP want independence, the Scots pension bill alone is three times the income from oil revenues,” he said to the audience at Glasgow University.
The SNP, whose popularity has surged in the past decade under the leadership of Alex Salmond, says independence would let Scotland make better use of its oil wealth rather than having often unpopular policies imposed by lawmakers in London. The increasingly bitter debate about Scottish independence has already ranged over use of the pound, the impact on businesses, defence, and European Union membership.
Brown says the cost of separation would include one billion pounds (US$1.7 billion) for a new pensions and benefits system.
But the SNP accused Brown of repeating “economically illiterate” claims made by the UK’s ruling Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition a year ago, tapping into voter dislike of the Conservatives in Scotland.
“He has finally ended the charade and joined his Labour colleagues in the Tory No campaign,” said Eilidh Whiteford, the SNP’s works and pensions spokeswoman.
Brown rejected the SNP’s divisive rhetoric, saying: “For too long, the referendum debate has been presented as one side representing Scotland and the other side representing Britain.”
He added that Salmond wants Scotland “opt out of the UK but opt into the UK currency without having any control over it.”
Last month, Brown said he intended to play a major role ahead of the September vote, but this was his first foray. He has acknowledged most of Scotland’s 5.3 million population want change although not necessarily to leave the UK, saying many would prefer more powers to be given to Scotland’s devolved Parliament that was set up in 1999.
His intervention follows reports of behind-the-scenes disagreements between political parties on the No side over their slide in the polls.
An ICM poll on Sunday showed support for independence steady from a month ago at 39 percent while opposition fell four points to 42 percent, with 19 percent undecided.
Better Together this week will launch a new “No thanks” advertising blitz and Labour leader Ed Miliband will lead a visit by his top team to Scotland later in the week.
Herald with Reuters